Executing Angel

A bad man, a flawed trial, and a needle

Diaz's trial began December 17, 1985. Before then, while incarcerated in Miami-Dade, he planned yet another escape, teaming up with other inmates to pay a corrupt corrections officer $10,000 for a MAC-10 machine gun. A cellmate, Ralph Gajus, foiled the plot by telling authorities. Gajus also shared details about the murder at the Velvet Swing, saying that Diaz had confessed to the killing. Gajus became a key witness for the prosecution.

The trial was a fiasco. Immediately after the jury was sworn in, prior to opening statements, Diaz fired his attorney and asked to represent himself. "The defense that we have spent countless hours developing over the last couple of months has now over the last 24 hours been rejected by my client," argued an exasperated Lamons, who requested the case be delayed so Diaz could undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Judge Amy Steele Donner declared Diaz fit for self-representation even though she established he would have to rely on an interpreter, had "no idea" how a trial was conducted, lacked a high school diploma, and had read only part of the U.S. Constitution. "This is going to be a nightmare," said prosecuting attorney John Kastrenakis.

Candy Braun, Diaz's erstwhile girlfriend, testified that Toro, not her boyfriend, pulled the trigger. On the witness stand she recalled the conversation in their apartment the night of the robbery. "If they weren't arguing, I probably wouldn't have heard it," court transcripts record her as saying. Braun remembered that she walked into the room, where Toro was recounting the night. "He said words like disparan, tipo panikiado [sic]. Disparan is shot, shoot. Tipo is another word for person, for a guy. Panicado is panic. When he said that, [Diaz] said to him, yelling mad, that that wasn't necessary." When questioned about what unnecessary thing Toro had done, she answered, "Apparently he shot somebody."

Braun admitted that Diaz gave her a wallet full of cash after the event. She took it unquestioningly.

Braun's testimony contrasted with that of Gajus, who alleged Diaz killed Joseph Nagy. Although they did not speak the same language, Gajus claimed Diaz had relayed his guilt in the matter via hand gestures. When asked in court testimony if Diaz verbally confessed, Gajus answered, "No, he did not."

Diaz was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. "His criminal background played a huge part in him getting sentenced to death," recalled Detective Smith, who has investigated homicides committed by five inmates now on death row. Smith, who is now retired, believes the sentence is fair. "I have a Catholic upbringing, but I've had to deal with it."

Helen Hauser, the attorney who led Diaz's failed appeal to overturn the conviction in 1987, says she still doesn't believe Diaz received a fair trial. "I thought it was wrong to permit him to represent himself. Even if he was sophisticated enough to object to a question, he wouldn't have had time because of the translation delay."

In addition, Diaz was considered a flight risk and was shackled in court. The judge sat behind bulletproof glass. Hauser believes these security measures influenced the jury. "I don't know whether he was guilty or not," she said in a recent phone interview. "I couldn't decide. But he did not get a fair trial."

Since that appeal, Diaz has made more than fifteen attempts to overturn his death sentence. The latest was based on the introduction of new evidence: Twenty years after the fact, Gajus admitted he had no idea if Diaz actually insinuated, with hand gestures, he had killed Nagy. He claims he was simply angry with Diaz for leaving him out of the escape plan.

On Friday, December 8, the Florida Supreme Court decided this new evidence did not warrant a re-evaluation of the death sentence, and Diaz is scheduled to die by lethal injection the evening of December 13. His current lawyer, Suzanne Myers Keffer, is still filing appeals to commute the sentence, including one that claims lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

As for who really killed Joseph Nagy, the secret will likely follow Angel Diaz to the grave. The third assailant at the Velvet Swing committed suicide shortly after the murder. Toro and Diaz each claim the other was the triggerman. "The only two people that know who the shooter was are pointing their fingers at each other," said Detective Smith. "I think they both deserve to get the switch."

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